The epic, not many filmmakers can accomplish the task of making an epic film. Just a few names in film history have had this talent. One of my favorite film directors, David Lean, excelled at this heightened work of filmmaking, directing The Bridge on the River Kwai, Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia. Today, filmgoers are lucky to have our grand filmmaker Steven Spielberg. Spielberg has been working mostly as a producer over the last few years, but this holiday season he releases his own epic film: War Horse.
War Horse, adapted from the book with the same name by Michael Morpurgo, is a story that starts in England before World War I. Albert (Jeremy Irvine), a young man by most measures falls in love with a horse named Joey. Albert’s father, in a drunken state, buys Joey to work in his fields and plow the ground – a task suited for a much larger horse. But times are hard and if Joey isn’t up to the task, the family’s home could be taken. So with determination and grit, Albert and Joey plow an impossible plot of land and win the respect of townsfolk in return. With the approaching war at hand, a storm damages the crop in the field and Joey is sold to the army in order to keep a roof over their heads.
As Albert promises Joey that he will reunite with him, Joey becomes property of England and a tool for use in the Great War with Germany. And so Joey goes off to war. During his time at war, he shares a few different owners and befriends a large black horse. In the course of his travels he shows remarkable courage, enduring love, and provides a symbol of something pure and kind for the soldiers he meets. Will Joey survive one of the bloodiest of wars, and will he ever be reunited with his dear Albert?
Spielberg brings to the screen a beautiful and yet haunting war film. Telling the story of such epic proportions through the eyes of a horse is not an easy feat. Writers Lee Hall and Richard Curtis share credit for this masterful screenplay that stays true to the book most of the time. Along to shoot the vistas of farmlands in England and dark, bloody war scenes, Spielberg returns to the talents of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Spielberg and Kaminski won an Oscars® each for Saving Private and Schindler’s List. War Horse could just be their third time at the Oscar® podium together. And to set the mood and pace of the film, there is no better film composer than that of John Williams. His score is so brilliantly written that it has its own mark, making the score recognizable and yet not over whelming or distracting the audience from the story of the film.
No film becomes an epic without a spectacular look provided by the art departments. Scenes of a country town and fields of war are provided by art directors Andrew Ackland-Snow (Senior Art Director) and Neil Lamont (Supervising Art Director) and set decorator Lee Sandales. Providing the vast range of costumes is Joanna Johnston. And bringing the look of the ravages of war to the performers, man and horse, is a large department of makeup artists head by Lois Burwell (Oscar® winner for Braveheart).
If there is one thing lacking, there is no starring performer besides Joey. All the actors are supporting the role of the horse. But this one missing element should not be considered to be a deficiency. Through the directorial genius of Spielberg, the horse provides exceptional depths of emotions and feeling. The loving story of horse and young man is charming, heart-warming and tragic too. Note also must be made for the casting of the film by Jina Jay. Casting directors are often forgotten when trophies are handed out, but are quite necessary for a film’s success. Jeremy Irvine is perfect as Albert. He is naïve and sweet in the beginning of the film and shows the necessary growth as an older English soldier in his later scenes. Emily Blunt as Albert’s mother does a beautiful job here. Tom Hiddleston, Celine Buckens and Niels Arestrup are the most notable of remaining supporting performers.
Spielberg once again has added a fine film to his resume. It stands well with his other films and perhaps may be noted as a part of a trilogy of “war” films with Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List. War Horse differs from these other war films as it has a very sweet, sentimental theme, which is refreshing after a summer of blockbuster films that were short on story and long on special effects. Perhaps, Spielberg will get the message from filmgoers that content still matters and there is no expiration on themes of love, longing and loss.
For Oscar® buffs, here is my take:
Most likely nominations:
Best Sound (both Sound categories)
Best Art Direction
Outside Chance for Nominations:
Best Visual Effects
Best Adapted Screenplay
War Horse is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of war violence and has a runtime of 2 hours and 26 minutes.
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Whatever your movie choice this week, please remember your movie theater etiquette: silence your cell phones & no texting, please don’t talk during the film and remove your children if they become a distraction to other audience members. Don’t forget that laughing, crying and cheering are always approved behavior and even encouraged.
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-Kay Shackleton is a film historian with special focus on Silent Films, see her work on SilentHollywood.com